Certainly, most Americans, who know their U.S. history, are familiar with the Revolutionary War story: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. According to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
LISTEN, my children, and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five,
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
Now, for those who live in the Hawkeye State, and certainly for those who call Johnson County, Iowa our home – here’s my salute to Philip Clark, our Johnson County Midnight Rider…
LISTEN, my children, and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride we hold so dear.
On the First of May, in Thirty-nine,
In order to save what’s yours and mine;
Philip Clark is the man of whom we speak,
A farmer from Elkhart – so fast – so sleek.
He mounted his horse and off he went,
Seventy miles in one day – I bet he was spent!
So, here’s to our hero – let’s give him a toast.
Philip Clark is the one of whom we shall boast.
You can read more here, but suffice to say that young Philip Clark, and his friend Eli Myers – both from Elkhart County in Indiana – were Johnson County’s first white farmers, moving their families here, at the invitation of fur-trader John Gilbert, in the spring of 1837. Click here to read more about Philip Clark.
That first year (1837) in the Iowa River valley was not an easy one – particularly for farmers who, by the sweat of their brow, cleared this virgin prairie – making it into the rich farmland we see today. It’s estimated that in January 1838, when John Gilbert and a handful of others gathered in his trading house for Johnson County’s first business meeting, there were less than 50 white residents here, living peacefully alongside 1,500 Meskwaki people.
When Iowa became an “official” U.S. Territory (1838) the new Territorial Governor, Robert Lucas, envisioned Iowa becoming a state and put into place a strategic plan that would allow that to happen. One important piece in that puzzle was to relocate the capital of Iowa from Burlington (in the far southeastern corner) to a more centrally-located community. In 1838, based on reports he had received from John Gilbert, it was widely accepted that the newly-formed Johnson County would be the best place for that new capital city.
On January 21, 1839, Lucas proclaimed:
An Act to locate the Seat of Government of the Territory of Iowa … so soon as the place shall be selected, and the consent of the United States obtained, the commissioners shall proceed to lay out a town to be called “Iowa City.”
With that declaration, the Territorial Legislature appointed three commissioners – Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds, and Robert Ralston – setting May 1 as the date when they would officially begin their search for an appropriate location within Johnson County for this newly planned community that would host Iowa’s governmental offices.
When the news of this decision made its way to Napoleon, our little band of pioneers, including Gilbert, Philip Clark and others, began making plans on how to best convince the commissioners that Napoleon was the best choice to be at the center of this new City of Iowa, as it was sometimes called. Click here to read more about the humble beginnings of Iowa City.
Sadly, in early March, John Gilbert, the man who initiated this whole process – the founder of Napoleon and the instigator of the idea of Johnson County being the host of the new territorial capital – suddenly died, leaving the leadership of the county in the hands of others.
So, on May 1, 1839, the little town of Napoleon was set to welcome the trio of men who would literally decide the future of Johnson County. As you can imagine, the people were both expectant, and yet, also a bit nervous. You see, Gilbert, in his January 1838 promotional efforts with Territorial leaders, had over-sold Johnson County, exaggerating about the population in order to secure a post office, roads, and bridges for the county.
I’m sure pioneers like Philip Clark, Eli Myers, and others were a bit worried about the fact that, in truth, there were less than 100 white settlers in Johnson County at the time, knowing full well the commissioners had been told that they would find a community of 1,500!
Historian Benjamin Shambaugh describes the setting on this May 1, 1839…
It’s at this point, the story gets a bit interesting. According to the historical records, at 9:00 am, the first of three commissioners – Chauncey Swan – who lived in Dubuque and was escorted by local resident Frederick Irish – arrived at Gilbert’s trading post.
Three hours later, there was still no sign of the other two commissioners – John Ronalds and Robert Ralston. I’m sure the good people of Napoleon were worried indeed. Rumor had it that there were those in Burlington who resented the fact that Johnson County had being chosen for this new assignment. Could it be that commissioner Robert Ralston, who lived in Des Moines County – where Burlington was the county seat – was wanting this whole project to fail? Ronalds, on the other hand, lived on the Iowa River south of Johnson County, but hadn’t expressed his opinions on all this – but where was he?
Swan, who was fully aware of these swirling controversies, stood up at noon, addressing the concerned citizens. Once again, Benjamin Shambaugh tells us more…
Our brave rider, Philip Clark, had quite a challenge in front of him. Ronalds lived in Louisa County, on the Iowa River about 35 miles south of Napoleon. As you can see from the map below, today that trip would take less than an hour – but in 1839, traveling on horseback on winding Meskwaki trails that had been cut through the Iowa River valley, this journey was a challenge, to say the least.
A round-trip of 70 miles – by horseback on an undeveloped trail – locate John Ronalds in Louisa County – convince him to come to Johnson County – sunset around 6 P.M. – arriving at 11 P.M. – all accomplished by Philip Clark in about ten hours!
You decide – but local lore maintains that Commissioner Swan, knowing the political turmoil that caused all this problem, looked at his watch – early in the morning of May 2 – and conveniently turned back the hands of his watch in order to fulfill the Territorial requirement that a second commissioner be present before midnight, fulfilling the majority requirement on May 1, 1839.
Maybe, this is one of the reasons why Chauncey Swan, sometimes known as the Father of Iowa City, is held in such high esteem? Click here to read more about Chauncey Swan.
For me, a long-time resident of Johnson County all these years later, I say…
Here’s a tip of the old hat to both Chauncey Swan (left), and our Midnight Rider, Philip Clark (right)! Thanks for saving Johnson County that late night in early May 1839!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere’s House website
Midnight Ride of Philip Clark, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Palimpsest, May 1939 Volume 20-Number 5, Article 4, pp 146-148
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